Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace gesture to supporters in the Mashonaland East provincial capital Marondera, about 80 km south of Harare, Zimbabwe, June 2, 2017. Robert Mugabe on Friday begins a series of interactive meetings with the ruling Zanu-PF's youths ahead of the 2018 elections in which he has been endorsed at the party's presidential candidate. Picture: Xinhua

Grace Mugabe, no longer travelling much to Dubai these days since the family gave up their luxury mansion, is taking an ever more prominent role in Zimbabwe’s politics ahead of elections next year.

In the last few years she was regularly out of Harare and was a resident in Emirate Hills; the same suburb in Dubai where the Gupta's have a vast residence. Emirate Hills is home to many billionaires, diamond dealers and political heavyweights trying to keep a low profile.

Grace spent time with both her sons, who regarded United Arab Emirates as their second home. But now, for reasons not yet made public, the sons have moved to South Africa to study.

Now Grace has inserted herself deeply into both the succession race and day-to-day political intrigues in Zimbabwe.

She was at her husband's side on Friday, wearing brightly coloured, new Zanu PF party gear, which she designed, at the first of the ten rallies he plans to hold ahead of the polls in which Zanu-PF is expected to win a massive victory.

Whoever takes over from Robert Mugabe – and he is in good health for a man of 93 – will have to cope with Grace who will be 52 next month; which means she may be around for several decades after her husband has to leave office in 2023.

Two years ago she was rumoured to be aiming to become vice president and ultimately inherit her husband’s title, but she denied that she had that ambition.

But the foundations are there for her to accumulate more political power. She has accepted a suspicious doctorate she achieved in a couple of months, from the University of Zimbabwe – most cabinet ministers have tertiary education.

She's also the boss of the ruling Zanu PF’s women’s league and is experienced in the party’s political routines.

But the first lady is not well-liked even outside the political cess pot of Harare. That means she must find herself an elevated political position to protect herself when her husband eventually leaves the top job.

Derek Matyszak for the Institute of Security Studies said at a recent seminar in Pretoria that many expect Grace Mugabe will become a cabinet minister soon.

He said: “She once expressed the fear that when Mugabe dies, she might be dragged along the tarmac behind a truck. So there are these fears and dynamics behind the scenes.”

He said a cabinet post “would improve her political capital so that she has some kind of political strength.”

But although many revile her, Grace is charming to meet and stylish and has good and loyal friends.

Grace also works hard at whatever project has captured her attention but her activities are costly, unprofitable and the funding behind them is not always clear.

She also has to manage and support three of her four adult children who are yet to find ways to earn a living. 

Only one child, Bona, 27, the eldest from her second marriage to Robert Mugabe, is well educated, is an accountant and is working part-time within her parents' unprofitable business empire.

Bona Mugabe was appointed to Zimbabwe’s censor board last month and was also listed as a founding board member of the still-to-be launched state-owned financial institution which will be called Empower Bank and which will concentrate on micro financing.

Indigenisation minister Patrick Zhuwao, who is also President Mugabe’s nephew, confirmed her appointment. He said plans for the setting up of the bank were at an advanced stage.

“We have asked a number of people to assist in putting together the necessary paperwork for the establishment of the Empower Bank as part of efforts to promote financial inclusion,” he told journalists in Harare.

The first lady is also costly. Last year she bought a diamond ring for about R14 million from Dubai and changed her mind and has asked for her money back.

She also sent R60 million overseas as payment for a residential Harare property she bought from a well-known white Harare family, the Teedes.

And yet the future for Grace, even though her husband is well enough to stand for re-election in 2018, remains uncertain, as she has to start thinking of ways to support the family’s lifestyle when Mugabe is no longer in the top job and supported by the state.

When Mugabe and Grace’s three children got older, the family decided to move out of the State House and into a mansion Mugabe built on land Zanu-PF bought for him in the early years of independence.

The 10 000 sq m three-storey house is the biggest home in Zimbabwe, and is maintained by the State. He uses the official State House as his office.

Mugabe’s private residence has dams, and wildlife and a vast wall around its 30 ha formal gardens, all maintained by teams of state workers. It is never used for state functions.

Grace has to find cash to support her ventures, which include the massively expanded dairy she took from a white farmer 14 years ago which has still not yet made a profit. 

She also makes no cash yet from the two huge private schools she built for the rich in the lovely Mazowe valley about 30 km west of Harare.

On the same land, she built another three-storey luxury hill top home overlooking her schools and the office block below. She also completed the orphanage which was built for her by South African businessman Jack Ping. And that too costs money to run.

Bankrupt Zimbabwe has to afford the Mugabe family's lifestyle. Mugabe will not travel overseas or in the region on commercial aircraft. The plane he was used to, the rather tatty Boeing 767, is out of action now as Air Zimbabwe is too broke to repair it and it cannot travel anywhere over the EU for safety reasons.

Mugabe’ son-in-law, Simba Chikore, formerly a junior pilot in Asia, is now the boss of Air Zimbabwe which hires a similar-sized aircraft from international luxury charter company Comulux for Mugabe when he travels.

The plane has a private master bedroom, ensuite bathroom and is big enough to carry a vehicle.

So how will vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, if he is to succeed Mugabe one day, cope with Grace Mugabe and her lifestyle if he goes on to inherit power after Mugabe retires, as he must. 

By that time Mnangagwa will himself be nearly 80. 

Many political observers say Mnangagwa has made it clear he is now getting on well with Grace Mugabe since she turned her attention back to the political squabbles going on about succession.

And that, analysts say is important for both of them and will be good for the country. But she is costly to support.

But without the continued web of protection, life might not be so easy for Grace as the economy is tough, and with reforms, is unlikely to be a favoured investment destination even after Mugabe is out of office.

And without him there, Grace is going to continue to need protection from the new first family. 

So she probably is going to have to look for more political power while her husband is still in office and is clearly in full control of Zanu-PF.

Independent Foreign Service